A well-wrought bowl of pho is one of the world’s truly great restoratives, an often miraculous gathering of broth, noodles, meat and herb-bright accompaniments that almost makes you glad you got a cold, just in order to be able to bask in its healing aura.
Before my family and I moved out of our apartment not far from Chinatown this past summer, my first stop, whenever I was laid low with a sniffle or a fever, was to any of the standout pho emporiums nearby. Just a few slurps and a course of DayQuil and I was back on my feet with speed.
The key, however, is to find to the good stuff. As with all the world’s great soups—tom yum from Thailand, caldo verde from Portugal, chicken noodle from Jewish mothers and grandmothers around the world—the range of quality is staggering. Just as a chicken noodle soup with overcooked meat and mushy vegetables is likely to bring you back down to the depths of your illness (if for no other reasons than psychological ones), so, too, it goes with pho: The cooking times, the nature of the liquid, the quality of the add-ins—all these can and do make or break a bowl.
Pho Ha, in the nondescript New World Shopping Plaza on Washington Avenue, is, happily, home to some very good, if not quite transporting, examples. The steak and meatball pho is one of the standouts here, a generous tub with islands of smartly considered meats. The tender and comforting steak is both lovely on its own as well as scooped up with any of the other goodies you’ve added to the soup; it has the ability to both shine on its own, as well as frame, say, the accompanying basil or sprouts in equal measure.
For a more challenging pho experience, make sure to try the pho chin nam gau, which uses flank and brisket to more familiar and flavorful ends, and adds the less-often-seen fatty flank to the equation, alongside tender strips of tripe, all white and almost spiky along their sides. But it’s the tendon in this one that will both surprise and possibly challenge you. Gelatinous textures, after all, are notoriously difficult for American eaters to handle, and this one is unabashedly jiggly. Still, it’s worth a try, as the flavor, both savory and mild, is excellent, especially when dragged through a bit of chili oil.
A similar texture is evident in the deceptively simple-sounding “fresh chicken with seasonal vegetables.” This, it was explained by our charming and knowledgeable server, starts out as a local chicken that’s butchered specifically for Pho Ha; that freshness is immediately evident, as the meat is impossibly moist and tender, and the flavor somehow deeper than what most of us are used to. It’s served simply, on the bone and beneath a pleasantly wobbly crown of skin, and the flavors—magnified as they are by what reminded me of a sort of Vietnamese gremolata—are far more memorable than a dish as simply named as this typically is.
Wonton and roast pork noodle soup found its most exciting expression in the dense, punchy dumplings throughout, as well as the aromatic slices of pink-edged pork. A vermicelli bowl, however, fell short; although the grilled pork anchoring the bun tom thit nuong was as smoky and decadent as any I’ve had recently, there were only a few diminutive shrimp and a surplus of noodles. It felt somehow skimpy, somehow less than I’d expected. On the opposite end of the protein-expression spectrum, however, the pork in the well-crafted summer rolls was unexpectedly bland, though the generous pink shrimp anchored it beautifully.
On balance, it’s easy to understand the enduring and justified popularity of this South Philly standout. (We know of several respected chefs who count Pho Ha among their favorite places to dine when not at their own restaurants.) The portions are more than generous, the flavors true and the prices as easy to swallow as most excellent bowls of pho tend to be. I may have moved out of the neighborhood, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I found my way there even more often than I have in the past. In sickness and in health, this is a restaurant worth frequenting.
610 Washington Ave., Unit 2
215-599-0264 | phohaonline.com
Photograph by Felicia Perretti